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Norman Reid
CASTEL, Dublin City University
Proceedings of a conference
Conference Article
School Directors, Teachers
Over 10 pages
This pdf contains the slides from a presentation by Dr Norman Reid at two conferences in Ireland, one in Dublin and one in Limerick. It addressed the whole question of why Chemistry is difficult for students, and considered some issues that might hold the answers to the question: Information processing, theories about how students learn the attitude problem.
The author begins with some history of school chemistry curriculum revision in the 1960s, showing that by the mid-1960s, reports had emerged in Scotland indicating that some of the chemistry is too difficult, but more importantly that this paralleled what was happening in other countries
Research Studies were instigated to identify the difficulties and to discern whether anything could be done about them. Attempts were made to identify misconceptions and any other underlying reasons for the problems. The result was numerous curriculum revisions, especially the USA, but Reid asserts that we need to be more scientific about teaching and learning.
• Many problems have been identified through various studies: Chemistry is abstract
• Chemistry is full of concepts
• Students hold many misconceptions
• It is all the fault of secondary schools
• It is all the fault of primary schools
• There is poor motivation and bad attitudes
• Students cannot do mathematics!
The response across many countries has been to try to motivate students through producing science roadshows, more glossy booklets, more advertising, more school visits, more science centres – but at the end of the day is there a simpler way of making the subject more attractive?
Reid introduces the concept of Information Load. This is explained through simple exercises using numbers. It can be defined in terms of
the number of ideas which a student has to hold at the same time in order to succeed. By measuring carefully the amount of information we expect students to retain at a given time we could reduce the stress on their working minds and memories. This is one potential solution to the problems with chemistry in schools. The reality is that there is no one factor that will make a difference but we should be open to trying new approaches to teaching and learning.
Other key research findings which should inform development of new curricula or teaching approaches are:
• Interest develops early (by age 14)
• Boys and girls are equally interested
• School teachers have a very critical role
• Things outside the school have almost no impact
• Applications-led curriculum approaches tend to be successful
• Integrated science courses are disasters
• Career potential must be perceived
This is a copy of a presentation which was delivered at two conferences, one of them the ChemEd-Ireland conference in October 2009.It was chosen because as a member of the audience at the conference the reviewer found that the assertions made by Dr Reid agree with many experienced by the reviewer over a long period of teaching and research in chemistry education. The conclusions of the document are important: when delivery of subject matter is altered, taking into account the research findings on working memory capacity and the importance of contextualization, the learners and educators have a more positive experience of the subject.
Marie Walsh Limerick Institute of Technology

Comments about this Publication

Your comments are welcome

Date: 2013.02.02

Posted by Beata Brestenská (Slovakia)

Message: Finally there is a work which gives me partial answer why it is so difficult to teach chemistry, problems of students’motivation, stereotypes in teaching and many other problems. These problems are with small differences in many European countries similar. The article is based on some published studies which deal with problems of motivation of students when learning. Stated causes are difficulty of learning curriculum, chemistry is very abstract, many incomprehensible terms in chemistry, it is nit attractive for students and etc. But in my opinion the real problems are didactics of teaching, personality of a teacher, curriculum, using of ICT and etc. It is very interesting that author states the term of information load which means not to load a student with too many information but carefully think over their selection and to concentrate only at significant things. It is a typical slovak problem of too many things in curriculum.
This, as the article states is connected with a principle of cognition and learning, it means with a cognitive psychology. The cognitive psychology explains problems with learning, eg. What is the aim of our memory and its limited capacity, which means that the more terms and categories we have to learn the less of them we remember and are able to use.We can prevent this by changing their order by decreasing their amount or by organizing them differently. Learning is also affected by contextualizing of a content (as it is seen in Scottish curriculum for age 14 – 16). The author states examples of some countries supporting motivation by organizing various scientific and advertising events, study trips and etc. He also states another interesting and stimulating fact that it is needed to work at a basis of short-term memory where are information and terms focused on intuition which cooperates with long-term memory.
The author states a term of „free information about web“. It is the amount of suggestions a student has to remember and if a working memory is overloaded and has a limited ability which is genetically given it is needed to use it differently. By decreasing of working memory – too many information – we can decrease mental stress and increase success of gained information. This could be done by a change, for example in the change of duration of a teaching, supporting of understanding instead of memorising and etc. I believe this experiences and accounts to be very stimulating and I will use them in my work.

Date: 2012.12.13

Posted by Inforef (Belgium)

Message: The publication observes the difficulty of chemistry for the students and searches reasons, based on various surveys. The publication first enumerates some of the stereotypes about student’s difficulties with chemistry (too many concepts, students can’t do mathematics...). It then explains the process of information acquisition and memory, adding that success decreases when there is too much information to recall at once. Indeed, an overloaded working memory prevents understanding. It explains the concept of pre-learning, preparing the mind for learning. It reports an experience: students doing four experiments, two with pre-laboratory exercises and two without. It was observed that pre-laboratories increased performance and changes students’ attitudes.

Date: 2012.12.04

Posted by Manuel Fernández González (Spain)

Message: This paper is highly recommended for Chemistry teachers as it deals with a key question: “why is Chemistry so difficult for students?”

The author, skipping the clichés for this question, goes for scientific research. Carrying out this procedure, we study the obstacles that do not facilitate students´ learning process, which is directly connected to motivation. The idea is that if the student has some kind of difficulty, his/her motivation will be really low.

One of the most valuable sides of the paper is the resource of cognitive psicology that tries to explain learning difficulties. The role of memory and limited capacity is pointed out here. Thus, the more concepts you receive the less they will work in real life. This can be avoided, if we change the sequence of units, reduce the explanation rhythm and divided up complex areas.

In addition, the previous ideas, there is another important fact that affects learning, that is contextualization of contents, which is very positive (as seen in Scottish Curriculum, aged 14-16, topics like Telecommunication, Space Physics, …)

However, popular beliefs, such as positive effects upon integrated science, or the impact on non-formal motivation science, can be proved useless.

Although the work is really interesting, we miss a specific reference to essential chemistry concepts and the role that students´ previous knowledge have.

We believe that this is paper should be taken into account by every Science teacher.

Date: 2012.10.17

Posted by Rositsa Dimkova (Bulgaria)

Message: The problem of motivation in learning chemistry at elementary and secondary schools is discussed only in part and in a generalized way.
According to the paper, the main reasons for lack of motivation in learning chemistry are to be looked for in the following: high level of information load, conceptual and theoretical inadequacy of course content; inappropriate and theory biased syllabi, poor mathematical literacy and poor interest in learning chemistry към изучаването на химията.
Similarly, the paper reports of successful and useful experience in motivating students; simpler and more entertaining explanations of processes and phenomena, more attractive and better illustrated hand-outs; larger number of exercises, study trips and visits of sites where knowledge of chemistry is applicable .
Teachers on the other hand are obligated to follow adopted curricula which prevents them from associating learning material with the latest scientific achievements. A good help could be found in internet-based resources which may be employed as useful short-cuts to better assimilation of complex and highly abstract chemical terms and formulations.
The paper proposes applicable and realistic approach that is time-based. In fact students need much more time than what they usually have in order to be seriously involved in learning chemistry. Of course, this is connected with the programs of study and methodology used.
In general, the paper appears to be a useful and applicable resource which is associated with motivation for learning and time of learning. Interest , in most cases, is generated by final outcomes or score.
Interest could be enhanced by an orderly approach to exercises which are to be orderly graded in complexity and sequence. In this way teacher’s input is well regulated by a definite number of activities and ideas which enables them to make a good progress in their learning.Moreover, each student will cope with challenges according to its individual capacity; he/she will be gratified by that performance and motivated to continue learning.
In my opinion this resource will be very helpful to the individual students in their quest of proper understanding and acquisition of study content.

Date: 2012.10.03

Posted by Enza Lucifredi (Italy)

Message: The author faces this kind of problem: why chemistry is so hard for students. (The author also lists those that are considered the most difficult subjects). The question is if there is the possibility to do something to improve this situation and to scientifically face the problem.
The paper reports some statements that are not about the lack of motivation but about difficulties encountered by students during the study of chemistry. Chemistry is abstract, full of concepts and frequently, primary and secondary schools fault , students have a lot of wrong notions, they are not motivated and they have negative attitudes. Students can not do math.
Concerning students difficulties that they can encounter , first of all the basis wrong notions and teaching strategies are relevant and I believe that those could influence their motivation. Despite all, in my teaching experience, I never found a lack of motivation to study chemistry and, on the contrary, the majority of the students considered chemistry as an interesting subject, enjoyable and concrete, preferred instead of other scientific subjects.
The author mentions how in a lot of countries the students motivation is promoted by scientific events, publicity, scholastic tours. He considers also an other way to ameliorate this situation. Analyzing a process information model (based on empirical proofs), where events, informations, notions are filtered by intuition to arrive at a work memory (short term memory) that interacts with the long term memory.
The author introduce the concept of ‘informations charge’’, as a number of ideas that a student has to keep in the same time to obtain a good result. If the work memory is overloaded, learning don’t occur. Because of work memory has a limited capability and it’s genetically determined, it cannot be increased but just used in a better and different way. By reducing the work memory charge and then the ‘informations charge’ can reduce mental stress ad increase the success. This could occur researching new strategies: changing for example the teaching programs structure, changing sequences and durations, encouraging more understanding than memorization (likes in Eleni Danili, Greece and Furat Hussein, Arabian Emirates, experiences). I believe that those experiences and considerations are really interesting and could be applied in our context.

Date: 2012.09.06

Posted by Theodoros Vachliotis (Greece)

Message: I think taht the paper is indirectly relevant, as it is addresses the question of why Chemistry is difficult for students, focusing on some issues that might hold the answers, like information processing model, theories about how students learn, and the attitude problem.

The paper does not directly explain the causes for the lack of student motivation. Actually, it considers poor motivation as one of the causes of students’ difficulty to study and understand chemistry. Problems that have been identified through various studies regarding this difficulty are presented.

The paper does present students’ obstacles in addressing chemistry. The main problems presented are that chemistry is abstract and full of concepts, students hold many misconceptions, the primary and secondary schools are responsible, there is poor motivation and bad attitudes, students cannot do mathematics. According to my knowledge and teaching experience, I believe that the primary and secondary schools are responsible indeed, but this is a very general statement. More specifically, I think that most of the problems are related with the teaching-learning strategies and methodologies, as well as with the implemented chemistry and science curricula.

According to the paper, the response to this “chemistry problem” across many countries has been to try to motivate students through producing science roadshows, more glossy booklets, more advertising, more school visits, more science centres. But the paper suggests that there is a simpler way of making the subject more attractive. Reid introduces the concept of Information Load. This is explained through simple exercises using numbers. It can be defined in terms of the number of ideas which a student has to hold at the same time in order to succeed. By measuring carefully the amount of information we expect students to retain at a given time we could reduce the stress on their working minds and memories. This is one potential solution to the problems with chemistry in schools. The reality is that there is no one factor that will make a difference but we should try new teaching-learning approaches. I think that the proposed solution is realistic and applicable and has at its core the factor “time”. The students need more than the usually offered time to be engaged with the subject matter and with knowledge integration activities. Undoubtly, this variable is integrally related with the applied teaching methodology and the corresponding curriculum.

The paper does not refer to the difficulties of chemistry teachers to keep updated to the continuous research progresses, as this matter is out of its scope.

A potential solution which is proposed is to reduce the stress on students’ working memory by measuring the amount of information we expect students to retain at a given time. Other key research findings which are presented and, in my opinion, they should be taken into account for the development of new curricula and teaching approaches are that interest develops early (by age 14), school teachers have a very critical role, applications-led curricula tend to be successful, and that the career potential must be perceived.

National Reports on successful experiences to promote lifelong learning for chemistry The national reports on chemistry successful experiences to promote lifelong learning for chemistry are now available on the related section of the project portal. The reports presents examples of successful experiences in the partner countries and the results of testing of ICT resources with science teachers.